Beyond the Blips: Air-Traffic Control's Postradar Age

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David Goldman / EPA

An air-traffic controller works in a terminal radar approach control room at the Atlanta TRACON in Peachtree City, Ga., on April 18, 2011

Scheduled nap times may help eliminate the problem of air-traffic controllers who fall asleep on the job. But even if such measures were in place, they would have done little to prevent the brief but worrisome aborted landing of a U.S. Air Force jet carrying First Lady Michelle Obama on April 18 after it got too close to a cargo plane ahead of it. The reason: the blips of the aircraft involved had momentarily vanished from radar.

The nation's airspace radar system is half a century old and hasn't been able to produce the necessary data to keep up with the volume of traffic in America's skies. Indeed, the blips, each of which indicates a plane in the air, refresh only every 4.7 seconds, degrade the farther the aircraft is from the control tower and don't travel through mountains. But new technology is coming online to do away with the system's limitations. In fact, in March the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its implementation plan for a whole new system, which is slowly being rolled out and is expected to be completely in place by the year 2020.

That new system, called NextGen, will be satellite-based rather than dependent on radar. Even before NextGen is implemented, satellite technology installed over the Gulf of Mexico has already alleviated one problem long posed by radar: its inability to track planes once they are 150 miles to 200 miles (240 km to 320 km) offshore. "With aircraft departing from the U.S. toward Mexico and points south, air-traffic controllers in Houston would have to wait 10 minutes after one aircraft departed before letting another depart the coast," says Paul Takemoto, spokesperson for the FAA. "In terms of efficiency, [that's] horrendous."

The FAA hopes that NextGen's satellite technologies and new procedures will make the work of air-traffic controllers easier and ease the congestion in the skies. Because satellite information is continuous, requiring much less refresh time than radar, it would allow controllers to keep a better eye on aircraft and also eliminate the necessity for many voice communications, which Takemoto says, are "fraught with possibilities for error." In the current system, he explains, "A controller will have to say something, a pilot will have to read it back to him. They may hear it incorrectly."

Mary Schiavo, a prominent critic of the FAA and a former Department of Transportation inspector general, thinks NextGen will be a vast improvement over the current radar-based National Airspace System. She cautions, however, that NextGen's efficiency may mean that controllers, with much less to do except in emergency situations, would then succumb to boredom, allowing the skills necessary to intervene to atrophy. "You always need a human to back up the computers. Planes are going to be even closer together," says Schiavo. "When the controller needs to intervene, it's going to be a hairy situation."

Takemoto, however, says that he doesn't foresee boredom being a problem for controllers. "The basic nature of their job is not going to change," he insists. "They're still responsible for separating aircraft. It's not like they're going to be idle bystanders watching the proceedings."

Indeed, as former FAA air-traffic-development director Bill Voss told CNN, the NextGen system is meant to provide another layer of protection, not to replace air-traffic control. It is, however, not going to be any good if a controller falls asleep. As Voss said, the technology wouldn't set off "any special bells or whistles to wake anyone up." A good night's sleep can solve lots of problems.